The American Regime and a Restless Nation
On the last day of the Constitutional Convention, right after adoption, a woman waiting outside the old Pennsylvania State House asked Benjamin Franklin whether the nation would be a monarchy or a republic. His answer was “A Republic, if you can keep it.” The Constitutional Convention invented the American government. It was an invention in two ways. First, it created a government where none had existed. Second, it created a machine, the machinery of government, which had sprung from the minds of the founders. Unlike other governments, it had no past. This government came into existence through design, architecture, and engineering.
The machine was built on two principles. First, the founders feared government, because governments tended to accumulate power and become tyrannies. Second, they did not trust the people, because the people—in pursuing their private interests—might divert the government from the common good. Government was necessary, and so of course were citizens, but both had to be restrained in such a way that the machinery of government limited their ability to accumulate power. The founders had created such a machine.
The founders were trying to invent a machine that restrained itself, thereby creating a vast terrain in American life that was free from government or politics. They sought to create a sphere of private life in which citizens would pursue the happiness that had been promised in the Declaration of Independence. The private sphere would be the sphere of commerce, industry, religion, and the endless pleasures that were the domain of private life. The most important thing about the machine they invented was the degree to which it was restrained from intruding on the things they held most important, the things that were not political.
It is one thing to invent a machine and another to make it run without extensive maintenance. The solution for this invention was to make it inefficient. The balance of powers that were created achieved three important things: first, it made the passage of laws enormously difficult; second, the president would be incapable of becoming a tyrant; and third, Congress would be limited by the courts in what it could achieve. The founders’ remarkably inefficient system of government did what it was designed to do; it did little, and the little that it did, it did poorly. The government had to protect the nation and maintain a degree of internal trade. But it was private life that would create a cycle of creativity that would allow society, economy, and institutions to evolve at remarkable speed yet not end up tearing the country apart, save for some near misses. This is why Benjamin Franklin left the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia both confident and cautious. He knew that the regime was designed to balance powerful and dangerous forces, and he knew that it was a new and untried form of government.
This was not simply a matter of the legal phrases contained in the Constitution. It was even more a matter of creating and enshrining moral principles, some only implicit and others clearly stated. Limits on society, both public and private, can be imposed not by political fiat or documents but by rendering the extraordinary moral vision as merely the common sense of the nation. The moral principles were complex and sometimes at odds with each other, but they had a common core: each American ought to be free to succeed or fail in the things he wished to undertake.
This was the meaning of the idea of the right to pursue happiness. The state would not hinder anyone. A person’s fate would be determined only by his character and talents. The founders did more than separate the state and private life. They created an ongoing tension between them. Visit a meeting of any local public school board, where the realities of the government meet the needs of the people. The desire not to have increased taxes—but to deliver increased services—confronts a government that constantly seeks to expand its power and funding, without committing itself to any improvements. The pressure accumulates on the democratically elected members of the school board who are caught in between. This is the microcosm of the tension, which leads from the local level to Washington.
The Republic, in principle, was not wedded to any particular place or people. The founders saw it as the form of government and society that was the most natural and moral. It could have been an ideal form of government anywhere. The Republic could have failed in the United States, yet whether it was in existence elsewhere or nowhere, in the eyes of the founders it would still have remained the most just of political orders.
This meant that the regime was unique. It was not connected solely to the people who lived in America. It was theirs if they kept it and belonged to others if they chose to have a regime like this. That made the United States radically different from other nations, which are rooted in a common history, language, culture, and place. For example, France and Japan are deeply tethered to their past. America is rooted in an invention, a form of government designed with a moral and practical end, but not, in principle, rooted in the American people. Hence Franklin’s warning. The very concept of the American republic is artificial, unconnected to the past.
The regime is called the United States. The country is called America. The regime and the country are linked by the country’s accepting the principles of the regime. It need not do so in order for America, the country, to exist. Americans could have chosen to switch to a different form of government—a monarchy, for example—and the country would have remained America. But we would no longer have been the United States, in the full institutional and moral meaning of the term. The United States of America is the place where the principles of the regime govern the country. This is a very different understanding from what exists in most other countries, and it has profound, and sometimes not recognized, consequences.
You can say that you are a citizen of the United States, but you cannot say I am a “United Statian.” The language doesn’t permit it. Your natural relationship is to America, your homeland. Saying you are American is easy. But your love of the land and of the people, and your relationship to the United States, are very different things. One of the constant challenges of the Republic is to keep the two aligned, for our natural inclination is to love our home, and loving the Republic is an intellectual exercise. The two need not be one, but the American founding is designed to make certain that there is no unbridgeable distinction. Mostly it works. When it doesn’t, there is tension.
Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin formed a committee to design a great seal for the United States. Given that the United States had been plunged into war by the signing of the declaration, this would not have seemed a priority. What these three men knew, however, was that the United States was a moral project and moral projects require icons, things that define the moral mission and carry with them a sense of the sacred. It took years to produce the Great Seal. In 1782, Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, was asked to take this project to conclusion. He did, and the final product now rests in several places, as sacred in American life as the Republic’s principles. The most important place you will find it is nearest to the hearts of Americans: the dollar bill.
Inventing the government was the preface to inventing a nation. Governments can be machines, but nations have to accommodate the actual lives of people. People don’t live abstract lives. They live real ones, within nations, and those nations give them a sense of who they are. Partly it has to do with the government. Partly it has to do with the principles of the nation, the things that tell us what kinds of people we are and ought to be. There can be weighty tomes written on this subject, but Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin provided the nation with a great seal that was to be a prism through which we looked at ourselves and that explains why we behave as we do. The Great Seal is symbolic and the symbols must be decoded. But in those symbols, we can find what they thought Americans should be and what citizenship in the United States must be.
We should take the Great Seal seriously because of the three men who called it into being. They not only were among the most extraordinary members of a group of extraordinary men but also represented all the major factions of the revolution. Jefferson was a democrat. Adams was a Federalist. Franklin was an iconoclast, and perhaps best represented the American spirit. He was a serious man. He was not a sober one. Franklin was a party of one and represented the people who loved the country, but he understood that decency required humor. It is amazing that three minds such as these—a philosophical genius, a legal genius, and a genius at living well—were able to share a single vision of who we were and who we must remain.
On the front of the seal is the eagle, said to represent the strength of America. Benjamin Franklin actually objected to the choice of the eagle, explaining his rationale in a letter to his daughter:
For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
Franklin is said to have preferred the turkey, a more honest bird. He most likely couldn’t tolerate the cliché of an eagle. Franklin was being funny, but he was also making the serious point that symbols matter.
On the banner, next to the eagle are the words E pluribus unum, meaning “From many, one.” It was said at the time to refer to the thirteen colonies, the many joining together and being one. Over time, however, history has given a different meaning to the phrase. Once the waves of immigration washed across the United States, the motto was used to refer to the manner in which the many cultures that had come to America had become one nation. It is unlikely that the founders ever envisioned the diversity of immigration, although the Constitution clearly anticipated it because it set the rules for naturalization. The Scots-Irish—Protestant Scots from Ireland who arrived after the English—were loathed as violent and unassimilable. It is an old story in the history of American immigration. The Great Seal is fixed in principle. It evolves in practice. Out of many, one, turned out to be the basis on which the American people were founded, but never easily. Here we are, 250 years later, and the principle of immigration still tears at the nation.
But the original meaning of E pluribus unum pointed at another, deadly problem that led to the Civil War. It is easy to forget how different the colonies were from each other and how aware they were of their differences. Rhode Island differed from South Carolina in geography, customs, and social order. Those differences endure today, but as a shadow of what they once were. E pluribus unum was chosen as a motto not because the new states had much in common but because to some extent they regarded each other as strange and exotic foreigners. Today we may not be strangers, but a New Yorker is frequently exotic to a Texan, and vice versa. The tension endures.
On the back of the seal is an unfinished pyramid, an interesting choice for an emerging modern country in a time when pyramids had not been built for many centuries. But its symbolism is powerful. A pyramid is a massive undertaking, involving the wealth and resources and labor of a nation. It is a unifying principle. The pyramid ties the Republic for which it stands and the people who built it into one. It tells us that the Republic is not simply a concept but the product of a people, and that ties the Republic to a nation.
The seal also signifies that the Republic is a work in progress and must evolve through the intense labor of Americans. The people endlessly build the pyramid on the land. A pyramid has a shape that compels the work to proceed in a certain way. You make the brick, you make the mortar, you lay the brick in an endless cycle. The pyramid gives labor its form and its predictability. Labor also has its moments of crisis and of success. This describes what American life will be like.
Above the pyramid are the words Annuit coeptis, meaning, “He has favored our undertaking.” “He” is assumed to be God. Yet it was decided not to use the word “God.” There is a great controversy in America between those who argue the United States is a Christian country and others who claim that it is completely secular. The creators of the seal clearly understood this issue. Whether they compromised or whether they were unanimous, there is no mention of Christ or even God in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Yet there is a clear reference to something beyond humanity who judges and favors the undertaking, a providence, as it is called in the Declaration of Independence. The founders could have referred directly to Christ, or they could have avoided any reference to the divine. They did neither. They did not simply embrace the secularism of the Enlightenment nor the religiosity of England. They refused to name the providential force, but they made it clear that there was one. The ambiguity was, I think, deliberate. It developed a creative tension that endures.
Beneath the pyramid is the third motto on the seal: Novus ordo seclorum, which means a “new order of the ages.” This is how the founders viewed the founding of the United States. It was not simply a new form of government but a dramatic shift in the history of humanity. That was radical enough. However, Charles Thomson, who crafted the phrase, said that what it represented was “the beginning of the new American era.” The most reasonable way to interpret this is that a new age has begun, and America would be at the center of the new age. There was nothing reasonable about this assertion at the time. In fact, if was downright preposterous. America was in its infancy, sharing a world filled with countries that had existed and evolved for centuries, if not millennia. The age that Europe had defined was far from over, and a new age, transcending the European age, was not yet visible.
Copyright © 2020 by George Friedman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.